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Supportive Communication


In times of crisis, “supportive communication” is the recommended communication style.  You can help to do this by focusing on problem-solving and the long-term emotional adaptation of the victim(s).  This implies communicating empathy, concern, respect and confidence in the abilities of all communicators.

The following eight basic attributes of supportive communication can be incorporated to improve team relationships:

1. Problem-Oriented Communication
Problem-oriented communication focuses on problems and solutions as opposed to blaming people.  Problem-oriented communication works well because it focuses on behaviors and productivity.  On the other hand, person-oriented communication focuses on things that cannot be controlled and might send a message of inadequacy to the receiver.  For example, calling a co-worker “irresponsible” describes the person, whereas “we don’t see things the same way” describes the problem.

2. Congruence Between Communicators
Supportive communication is based on congruence, not incongruence.  Congruence occurs when what is said, both verbally and nonverbally, matches what the individual is thinking and feeling.  There is general agreement among researchers that the best relationships are based on congruence.

Incongruence can occur under two different circumstances. First, it can occur when there is a mismatch between what one is experiencing and what one is aware of.  For example, a team member may not be aware that he or she is experiencing hostility toward another team member, even though the other team member can sense it.  The second type of incongruence occurs when there is a mismatch between what one thinks or feels and what one communicates.  This is common in relationships when one party is less than honest in its communication with the other.  For example, a team member may be very upset about an incident concerning another team member, but deny saying that the feeling exists.  It is important that team members be honest and genuine when coaching or counseling their subordinates because, often, those who do not express what is on their mind create the perception of a “hidden agenda.”  If a team member senses that not all is being said, the relationship may become distrusting or superficial.

3. Descriptive Communication
Supportive communication is descriptive, not evaluative.  When a judgement is made or a label is placed on individuals for their behavior, evaluative communication has taken place. A team leader who says, “You did this wrong” often results in the team member becoming defensive. A probable response (perhaps in silence) might be “No, I did not do it wrong.” Evaluative statements result in a deterioration of the team members’ relationship. People often make evaluative statements when the issue is emotionally disturbing or when a person feels threatened, however they can very easily take control of the situation by using descriptive communication and focusing on a solution.

4. Validation of Communication
Supportive communication validates rather than invalidates individuals. The goal of validating communication is to help people feel valued. Invalidating communication results in negative feelings of self-worth. It denies the presence and importance of individuals by conveying superiority, rigidity, or indifference.  During invalidating communication, people often do not take time, do not listen, do not try to understand, but interrupt, anticipate, criticize, or disregard what is said; in their own remarks they are frequently vague, inconsistent, verbose, insincere, or dogmatic. As a result, people often conclude these types of conversations feeling more inadequate, more misunderstood, and more alienated than when they started.

On the other hand, validating communication helps people feel recognized, understood, and accepted. A major part of validating communication when there is a superior/subordinate relationship is egalitarian communication, whereby subordinates are treated as worthwhile, competent and insightful. Joint problem-solving is emphasized rather than the projection of a superior position.

5. Detailed Communication
Generally, the more specific the communication the more motivating it will be. A team leader who says to a team member, “You have trouble managing your time” is too general to be useful. A more specific comment might be “You spent an hour today photocopying articles when you could have asked the secretary to do it.”  Specific statements avoid global statements that might lead to defensiveness. For example, the global statement “You have no consideration for others’ feelings” is likely to be met with a defensive statement “Yes I do, I am always considerate of others’ feelings.” A specific statement is much more effective: “By using sarcasm in your response to my question, you gave me the impression that you don’t care about my feelings.” The response is more likely to not be defensive: “I’m sorry. I know I often speak before thinking of how my words will affect others.”

6. Conjunctive Communication
Conjunctive communication flows smoothly from what was stated previously. Disjunctive communication is disjointed and disconnected from what was previously said. Interpersonal communication between a team leader and team member can become disjunctive in at least two ways. First, when there is not an equal opportunity to speak between the parties. This can occur when one party dominates the conversation or interrupts the other party frequently. It is important that both team leader and team member collaboratively communicate.

Team leaders skilled at conjunctive communication are perceived as better communicators by their team members.  Conjunctive communication entails asking questions based on the team member’s previous statements, waiting for a sentence to be completed before responding, and by saying only a few sentences at a time to give the other team member an opportunity to speak. By using conjunctive communication, the team leader will not only confirm the worth of the team member, but will also foster teamwork and joint problem-solving.

7. Two-Way Message Delivery
Supportive communication requires listening, not one-way message delivery.  The previous six attributes of supportive communication focus on message delivery. However, just as important is listening effectively and responding to the other team member’s statements.  People judged to be the most “wise” and the most sought-after for interaction are also the best listeners.

8. Non-Judging Communication
About 80% of most people’s responses are evaluative or judging. A goal of supportive communication is to suspend judgment and evaluation as a first response to a statement. This is neither easy nor automatic. When people are preoccupied with meeting their own needs (e.g. I must win this discussion), have already made a prior judgment or view the communicator negatively, poor listening results. By effectively listening to people, you are showing them that you respect their thoughts and think that they are worth listening to.  In addition, people will know that they can talk to you during a crisis situation in order to find a solution to their problem.

In summary, the basic idea of supportive communication is to show understanding and respect for the other person’s or team members’ feelings.  As a team leader, helping people to cope by themselves is your goal, and mutual respect and consideration leads to positive results.  Thus, when confronting an individual with whom you have a problem, one should always be mindful of your own actions and words and their affect on the other team member’s feelings.  Using supportive communication will lead to a stronger, more effective team that benefits everybody.

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